Scripture Scholar Ciaran O’Callaghan on “for many”

The use of “for many” in the Institution Narrative: a scriptural note

We do not have direct access to the actual words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Rather, we are working through a series of translations (Greek, Latin and English) of a memory of what Jesus said in Aramaic. The earliest text (1 Corinthians 11:23-27) recalling that memory is from Paul writing 55 AD: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’.” Paul has no reference to the phrase “for many.” It is Mark (12:24) who introduces the phrase into the Gospel tradition in 70 AD: “He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many (hyper pollōn)’.” In his Gospel, Mark proclaims Jesus as the Suffering Messiah of Israel. It is not possible to know if Mark is influenced by the Suffering Servant Songs in the Book of Isaiah, but there are strong link between Mark’s text and the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 53:12), where the LORD’s servant is described as having borne the sins “of many (pollōn).” Here, the Greek is a translation of the Hebrew rabbîm which means “many,” “multitudes,” “myriads beyond number.” Mark’s Greek phrase is an attempt to communicate a Semitic concept of inclusiveness which implied that Jesus’ death was a death for all. The phrase could be translated as “for many” or even “for the multitudes.” Matthew (26:28) writing in 85 AD follows Mark: “For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many (peri pollōn) for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew modifies Mark’s Greek phrase slightly, but still retains its underlying Semitic meaning. Luke (22:20), writing in 80-85 AD omits the phrase entirely: “And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’.” Thus Luke is closer to the Pauline memory. In short, two New Testament texts have the phrase “for many” and two do not. Those texts which use the term do not restrict Jesus’ sacrificial death in anyway. On the contrary, what is implied is that Jesus died to save all. “For many” is a very literal translation of the original Greek, but does not immediately communicate the underlying Semitic and theological concepts. “For all” is a good attempt to communicate those concepts, but is not a literal translation of the original text. It is worth noting how other modern languages have translated the phrase in the Eucharistic Prayer: Dutch (alle mensen); French (la multitude); German (alle Vergossen); Italian (per tutti); Norwegian (de mange); Portuguese (por todos); Spanish (por todos los hombres) and Swedish (de många).

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  1. Fr Vincent Twomey in today’s Irish Times says that the new translation will be “for the many” — which is close to the French “pour la multitude”; but unless this is a last-minute change, it seems that Fr Vincent is mistaken. He also suggests that there are deep theological reasons for the change from “for all” to “for many” and they have nothing to do with Jansenism. I suppose the reasoning is that it is dangerous to assert that Christ died for all lest people become presumptuous; or if not, what is it?

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